France's COVID Restrictions on Large Gatherings Don't Include Political Rallies

France will soon enact a COVID-fighting restriction that limits large gatherings at public venues to no more than 2,000 people at indoor events and 5,000 at outdoor ones. But the crowd cap doesn't apply to election campaign rallies, an exception that has infuriated many.

Some have accused the crowd limit rule of hypocrisy in allowing larger crowds to gather in some contexts but not others. This includes musicians who will no longer be able to perform in front of stand-up crowds, leading some performers to joke that they will refer to their concerts as political rallies in order to be able to perform for larger crowds.

Tourism Minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne told RMC radio Thursday that the government made a "distinction between static gatherings and places where there is movement" in deciding what gatherings were exempt to the rule, French broadcaster RFI reported.

The public gathering limit is only one measure in a handful of restrictions recently imposed to curb rising infection rates. Another new ban prohibits eating and drinking at French cinemas, which were still on the road to economic recovery after the impacts of the pandemic.

France COVID Vaccination
France will soon enact a COVID-fighting restriction that limits large gatherings at public venues to no more than 2,000 people at indoor events and 5,000 at outdoor ones. Above, people wearing protective masks wait to be vaccinated against COVID-19 at the National Velodrome on December 22 in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France. Chesnot/Getty Images

COVID-19 measures kicking in Monday, once France's New Year's celebrations are out of the way, will mean an enforced rest for popcorn machines and ice creams left in cold storage. The ban of at least three weeks on eating and drinking also applies to theaters, sports venues and public transport.

For cinema owners hoping to lure back movie fans who switched to home-viewing during the pandemic, not being able to tempt them with candies and soft drinks is another blow. French cinemas sold 96 million tickets in the eight months they have been reopened this year, a jump of 47 percent compared to 2020. But ticket sales are still down 55 percent compared to 2019, before the pandemic, the National Center for Film and Moving Images said Thursday in its look at French cinemas' annual sales.

Benoit Ciné Distribution, which supplies 70 percent of France's cinemas with popcorn, sweet treats and drinks, was deluged with both order postponements and delivery requests from movie houses expecting good sales on the final weekend before the food and drink ban, with Spider-Man: No Way Home and Matrix Resurrections featuring on billboards.

"It's like being told to apply the emergency brake to the high-speed train," said Vincent Meyer, a director at Benoit.

Against raging coronavirus infections, the government is hoping its latest measures will also apply a brake on the fast-spreading Omicron variant, but without derailing France's economic recovery that is a vote-getter for President Emmanuel Macron, who is facing reelection in April.

France's COVID-19 death toll is already at more than 123,000 people. New infections are higher than they have ever been and hospitals are again overburdened with the gravely sick. Many health experts had called for stricter measures than those announced by the government this week, with some pushing for renewed closures of schools and businesses.

Michel Enten, manager of the Le Fontenelle cinema in the town of Marly-le-Roi west of Paris, was relieved to stay open, even if he'll no longer be able to sell cotton candy, popcorn, ices and drinks. He says he has lost about half of his clientele during the pandemic. He expects the ban on food and drinks to hit larger cinemas particularly hard and says it may even help lure back fans to smaller, arty cinemas like his.

"There are lots of people who hate hearing the sounds of popcorn in the auditoriums," he said. "Perhaps we will win over new movie fans, people who were watching Netflix and are saying to themselves, 'Now there's no more popcorn, let's run to the cinema.'"

Cinemagoers said they understood the need for new measures, although some struggled to see any logic in not being able to indulge their sweet cravings in cinemas or theaters when restaurants are still allowed to serve food and drinks.

"It's going to be strange to just go to the cinema and do without all these little moments," Vincent Bourdais said as he lined up in Marly-le-Roi for Spiderman. "Often, when one imagines the cinema, one thinks of the auditorium, the beautiful posters, the popcorn, the smells."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

France COVID Outbreak
More than 123,000 people have died from COVID-19 in France, and hospitals in the nation are overwhelmed with patients. Above, a nurse tends to a COVID-19 patient at the intensive care unit of the Delafontaine AP-HP hospital in Saint-Denis, France, on December 29. Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images